One-way graphic – Frank McNally on the south-facing statues of Dublin’s main street

An Irishman’s Diary

Walking down Dublin’s O’Connell Street the other day, I noticed something about which Myles na gCopaleen, formerly of this parish, used to complain.

For no good reason, now as in his time, all the statues are facing south.

There have been a few personnel changes since Myles's day (circa 1940s). Horatio Nelson is out, for example. Jim Larkin is in.

But the directional conformity continues. Every man jack of them (and they are all men) is still south-facing.


Myles used to think they looked like they were in a queue for something, and gesticulating at each other’s backs, as if in impatience.

Even James Joyce, another latter-day addition and located just off the main thoroughfare at the junction with North Earl Street, is standing at a 45-degree, southwesterly angle, eyeing the GPO as if thinking of cutting into the line somewhere behind Daniel O'Connell.

Maybe sculptors would argue that statues, like houses, should face the sun. But I wonder if their alignment on Dublin’s main street does not also hint at the historic neglect of the part of the city behind them. As they unanimously gaze towards the river Liffey and beyond, after all, the implication is that there’s nothing worth looking at on the Northside.

It must have been Lord Nelson who started this fashion. Then O'Connell followed it, turning his back on the entire street now named after him.

At its other extreme, meanwhile, even Parnell looks away from his own square in favour of the view south.

In fairness to Parnell, were he facing north, he would at times during the last century have seemed to be studying the cinema listings at the Ambassador, which might have been undignified.

But surely Father Mathew, the next statue down, could have been better orientated to look towards the north-inner city (including, in his time, the notorious Monto district), where the work of an apostle of temperance was most needed.

As for the others, demands of symmetry alone should dictate that either John Gray or William Smith O'Brien face the other way around. Instead, the case of the latter only highlights the tyranny of the south-facing alignment.

Not only used Smith O’Brien be located on the southern end of what is now O’Connell Bridge, he was also placed there at a charmingly eccentric angle, ignoring O’Connell and instead gazing northwest, up the river towards the Four Courts. Then, because he was blocking traffic, they moved him to where he is now, inserting him in the O’Connell Street duck-row, just ahead of Gray.

Which, aside from all else, draws unfortunate attention to the fact that the two statues, by the same 1870s sculptor, are so alike that they could be a pair of mantelpiece ornaments, except that if they were, they’d be facing each other and not looking like they were waiting for the same bus.

Another thing I've been noticing about Dublin statues lately is which leg they lead with. For this I blame Thomas MacGreevy, a 20th-century poet, and Peter Sirr, whose recent book Intimate City, quoted MacGreevy's 1955 essay on the uniformity of stances among the figures of O'Connell Street: "O'Connell with his right leg out, Smith O'Brien with his right leg out, Sir John Gray with his right leg out, Nelson with his right leg out . . ."

Parnell alone leads with his left leg and so, ironically for a man who spoke about “the march of a nation”, is out of step. Except perhaps with Father Mathew who, even more ironically for a temperance campaigner, is legless. Or at least, having given him a full-length priest’s robe, the sculptor did not feel the need to supply any leg detail.

You might think that Jim Larkin, of all people, would also have been a left-leg-forward man. But no, he has both feet planted firmly beneath him, to allow for maximum use of his arms.

By the way, and leaving O'Connell Street, the statue of James Connolly (by Eamonn O'Doherty, 1996) down at Liberty Hall makes up for several of the right-leg leads elsewhere. His left is advanced almost aggressively, like a Monaghan farmer marking a disputed land boundary.

Countess Markievicz (across the river in Townsend Street, by Elizabeth McLaughlin) is a left-footer too.

But perhaps tellingly, another female figure of the south inner city – the mythical Lady Justice at Dublin Castle – favours the right.

Not that this was the main criticism of her by Dubliners, traditionally. The problem is that, like the O’Connell Street statues, she faces south, which in her case means into the castle yard. Hence the withering verse, by some anonymous satirist: “The Statue of Justice/Mark well her station/Face to the castle/Arse to the nation.”